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No dumbing down piano study for adult students

I’m ready for a shower of criticism on this one. After all, some adults want their favorite transcription of the Elvira Madigan theme song, (aka Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C, Andante) to encapsulate their musical journey—at least for part of the time. And that’s OK if the transcription route of top ten, poorly transformed (rotten tomato) versions of the Classics doesn’t squeeze out real deal pianoforte masterworks in unadulterated form.

On that pessimistic note, one of my students from the Central Valley, (aka agriculture’s West Coast heartland) had studied with me for 6 years before I escaped to pesticide-free Berkeley CA. Thinking she might be a carry-over on SKYPE, I’d already planned her next deep-layered musical exploration: Chopin’s B minor Waltz which would have been a logical follow-up to the less complex Waltz in A minor, No. 19, Op. Posthumous.

But no sooner than my pupil showed a lack of enthusiasm for ONLINE instruction, I had referred her out to a seasoned Valley mentor who’d graduated from one of the most distinguished European conservatories and made no bones about her “superior” training.

With such a self-ignited reputation, one would have expected a sequence of lessons on an exceedingly high level.

No such luck. The progression of selected works was tantamount to a poorly transposed, two-page FUR ELISE reduction, minus the meaty middle section and chromatic bridge to final theme.

It wasn’t the Beethoven Classic that was CUT to unrecognizable form, however, but a Chopin substitute that might have been as harmful as a banned artificial sweetener.

In short, the student was given an impossible remake of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in Db Major, transposed to the key of G, with more technical land mines than the original. Certainly, the overwhelmed pupil was not ready to tackle the URTEXT edition or a shoddy substitute.

The good news is that she grew so frustrated with the roster of fakes, that she headed over to SKYPE in sheer desperation. Now two years later, she’s back to basics and deep-layered learning…

Which brings me full circle to the solid journeys my adult pupils are taking minus God forsaken short-cuts.

Case in point:

One student embarked upon the Schumann “Traumerei,” No. 7 from Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) and has realized how fingering choices and voicing are pivotal to the initial learning stage. If fingering is haphazard, then a seamless legato line is unattainable.

Schumann Kinderszenen Urtext

To assist her study, I prepared a video that draws on the URTEXT edition, with recommended finger-switching maneuvers that will aid smoothly connected lines.

But her first assigned goal this week is to thread through the treble melody without adding the balance of voices.

Such a study model is shown in the video below:

And here’s my play through:

In summary, it all hearkens back to the meaning of piano study and its serious ingredients. If a student wants to read through fun transcriptions in his/her own spare time, I have no objection, but when lessons roll around each week, it’s most valuable to pursue compositions that have been time-tested for their substance and beauty. And as a direct benefit, they seed technique and advance musical growth.


PS: There are finely composed Jazz pieces, contemporary literature, etc. that can be integrated into the curriculum. These should be assessed for relevance to a student’s level of advancement.

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Piano Lesson from the Big Apple by iPhone!

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 7.27.10 AM

It’s one thing to fly from California to New York, taking in awesome views from the plane.Over NYC JFK But would I lay back and lapse into surrendering a week of piano instruction just because I had a NYC based family obligation? No way! As long as I had my iPhone as backup, I would try to teach my North Carolina student from my landing on West 97th.

My best friend, Laura, Oberlin alum and ex-Big Apple roommate had given me her West Side digs that came with a rebuilt Steinway B, so I could play away and teach a lesson or two.

Steinway B at Laura

Using the iPhone with its Face Time application was a first for me! Would the tiny mic properly amplify my voice, demonstrations, and could the internal speaker provide the right volume as the student played? It seemed there were many variables to worry about.

Well, not a problem! Everything worked with a couple of shutdowns since I didn’t have my router or hard wire cable which seemed the best hardware for Online lesson transmission.

Some adjustments, however, seemed to improve the iPhone cyberspace: I reduced my USB extensions and switched to cellular, not relying on the local Wi Fi provider. (Different rooms had varied reception, some better than others)

Overall, I think the undertaking was a success– well documented by my tripod mounted camcorder that captured the whole lesson on video.

Here are a few samples:

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Pedaling Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous

Frederic Chopin

When considering ways to pedal Chopin’s ethereal A minor Waltz, I think back to Stephen Hough and his teacher’s comments about the learning process: “I don’t care how you’re playing the piece now, what I care about is how you’ll play it in 10 years.” (Gordon Green)

Well as a segue way to this posting, I will admit to having a time-nurtured set of revelations about interpretation as well as pedaling the Romantic composer’s masterpiece. Certainly, my current pedaling choices, different from those offered in 2011, are not set in stone and are subject to experimentation and variation. That’s what musical growth is about for students of all levels. And we must constantly remind ourselves of our eternal student status with its attendant learning horizon expansion. (The creative process has no bounds and always preserves an opening for new thoughts and ideas to filter in)

Having opened with no apology for my flux of ideas pertaining the Chopin’s A minor Waltz, I still offer my latest pedaling practices, with a webcam directed at my right foot. Hopefully, this will be a springboard for those embarking on a common, Chopin inspired musical journey.

Play through in Tempo for pedaling:
(Rubato is added in this playing)

A good reference for pedaling techniques of all varieties is Melanie Spanswick’s excellent blog on the subject:

My teaching supplement for an Online adult piano student:

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Stay LONGER with a piece for higher levels of learning and awareness

All too often piano students give up on a piece after so many weeks of exposure, thinking the fingering is settled, the beats are well-measured, and the notes have fallen into place.

At this juncture, a Big STOP SIGN Stop sign must impede the restless from plunging into a new musical journey despite their belief that the old one has run its course.

In truth, those who STAY the course at a point when boredom and frustration set in, can experience a heightened level of awareness about a composition if properly guided by a mentor.

To cite a case example, one of my adult students has practiced J.S. Bach’s A minor Invention in conscientious baby steps for quite a long period of time. Yet her tenacity as well as determination to realize the piece to a high level of artistry has stepped up her perception of multi-dimensional aspects of the composer’s two-voice masterpiece. (Patience is the WORD!)

First she grappled with fingering, phrasing, articulation and counterpoint–comprehending two independent, though interactive voices; then she learned about harmonic rhythm, modulations and their impact on phrasing and contouring lines. When note slip-ups occurred, she understood that blocking techniques would improve her sense of centering, and how shifts of the hand with rotation and relaxation synthesized in the flow of broken chords patterns. In stages she was ready to absorb even more analysis about the piece as she embraced a kinesthetic/affective/cognitive relationship to it over months.

These many STAGES of learning could not have played out in a predictable time span with pre-set deadlines. Instead, the student realized that committing long range exposure to a musical work provided a generous opportunity to increase the intensity of her awareness.

At our last lesson on the Invention, we specifically worked on threading a melody through reams of broken chords in a refined shaping process that created more musically fluid lines.

Naturally, through this whole developmental process, I became inspired to create my newest Bach Invention 13 tutorial that reflects a heightened journey of discovery made possible by a dedicated student.

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Tempo Rubato and Chopin Waltz in A minor No. 19, Op. Posthumous

Tempo Rubato as defined in Wikipedia:

“Tempo rubato (free in the presentation, Italian for: stolen time) is a musical term referring to expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist or the conductor.”

I think of it in ebb and flow terms with phrases breathed in and out of cadences in a musically extemporaneous way but not overly exaggerated. From my perspective, tempo rubato should be tastefully applied in the Romantic genre. (Though freely rendered phrases can characterize music from other historical eras as well.)

As it played out, one of my adult students, who had conscientiously layered her learning process over months, was now ready to polish and nuance the Waltz in tempo rubato framing.

Our mutual explorations were recorded:

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The argument for learning piano on an acoustic

Today I was scoping out some Baldwin Acrosonic pianos on New York Craig’s List as I have a few East Coast Skype students who are playing not-so-terrific sounding digitals. They cannot produce a singing tone on them, or enjoy the “feel” of a real piano. (the so-called hammer-weighted feature, notwithstanding) Naturally, not every “real” piano is worth any serious attention, but there are pianos of the small variety (if there’s a space issue) that play a lot bigger than they appear, and have musical value.

In my experience over the years, a well-cared for Baldwin Acrosonic, considered the Cadillac of the spinet and console variety with its innovative wide sound chamber, is a decent acoustic option, particularly if it’s a first piano purchase. (These range in price from $450 to about $850 on the used piano market) One of my pupils got hers for $250 a few years ago, since I knew the fellow who was selling it and he gave her a bargain price. He threw in the moving for a song. Another, who relocated from Berkeley to UK had his Acrosonic packed up and transported by boat to its destination.

I have five students who own these, and they’re very happy with them. My preference is for the 1960s era Acros. Once one gets into the 80s, they are not the ones made in the US, but were sold off to Asian companies. Not the real deal. Those in the 50s are nice, but I tend to favor the next decade.

This morning I logged onto FaceTime (A New Jersey piano owner) and had the seller test out the piano for me. Naturally, it would have been nice to be PRESENT LIVE beside the piano, but I had some good information based on the ONLINE test run across the keys. While the hammer assembly looked clean, as I asked the owner to open the lid, I would have a Registered Technician detail it, and I would urge him to TUNE the piano before it’s considered for purchase. I’d want to test the tightness of the pins and the wear on the hammers. (the evenness of the action would be a factor in the overall evaluation as well)

Many sellers argue that since the piano is being moved, why bother to tune it? But that makes no sense because tuning it is like presenting a well-tended house for sale. Why would a seller want to showcase a piano that is not Up to pitch and ready to go? If I went to a piano showroom, the pianos I’d sample would be IN TUNE, regardless of the need to tune the instrument once it settled into a new environment. The advice of Larry Fine is well-taken, right out of his best-selling, Piano Book.

When I purchased my singing nightingale Haddorff, I insisted that it be tuned before I sealed the deal, and the information gleaned from the tuner was essential to my decision-making.

My Haddorff 1951 console, gorgeous inside and out

No digital piano can match a decent acoustic–the touch is DIFFERENT on a digital. It’s not a real piano. That’s a fact. Yet so many will argue that real pianos have to be tuned, and they can sound really awful, too. Well, who would buy an “awful” piano to begin with. One must discern what one is buying and have experts second on a prospective buyer’s intuitive love for a particular piano. For certain, there are many lovely acoustic pianos on the used piano market at very reasonable prices that are worth bringing home and this is one of them, among many.


It doesn’t hurt that the above is drop-dead good-looking as well.


Follow-up report by Dave Eggleston, Registered Piano Technician (RPT)